Low Marks for Higher Ed: The Epidemic of Sexual Violence in Colleges and Universities

Jul 3, 2019

College-aged students occupy one of the highest risk categories for sexual assault. According to RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence organization, 23.1% of female undergraduates and 5.4% of male undergraduate experience some form of sexual violence. Further, only 20% of college women ages 18-24 report their victimization to law enforcement. Even in institutions of higher education, sexual violence remains a largely underreported crime.

In a blog post for Psychology Today, Judith L. Herman, M.D. writes, “on many campuses, sexual assault, like hazing, is a traditional initiation rite, carried out in secrecy and implicitly tolerated, if not openly celebrated.” Many colleges cultivate campus cultures that tolerate the victimization of “others” – be they women or members of any minority group. RAINN reports that a greater number of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students endure sexual assault than their non-TGQN peers. Colleges across the nation have failed to acknowledge the epidemic of sexual assault among students, much less create effective sexual violence prevention and response strategies. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) analyzed data from 11,000 colleges and universities and found that 77% of these campuses disclosed zero reports of sexual assault in 2016. Given what we know about frequency of sexual violence on and off campuses, this is an impossible statistic.

College and university students are not the only ones who perpetrate sexual violence against other students. Faculty and staff also prey on students, exploiting their power for sexual gratification. A recent high-profile case involves Dr. James Heaps, a former gynecologist at UCLA’s health center, who has been charged with sexually abusing two of his patients. He faces allegations from at least 22 other women. UCLA officials are under scrutiny for their response to complaints against the doctor. A 2019 report reveals that Ohio State sports team doctor, Richard H. Strauss, now deceased, sexually abused at least 177 male students from the 1970s through the 1990s. Sexual violence permeates the lives of college students, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by their peers, their teachers, and even their healthcare providers.

Title IX, a federal law, forbids sexual discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. In her post for Psychology Today, Dr. Herman explains, “feminist activists have advanced the argument that the entrenched ‘rape culture’ on college campuses constitutes a form of sex discrimination because it deprives women of equal access to education and that colleges have an affirmative duty to put an end to it.” Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education sought to strengthen the provisions of Title IX, working to hold schools accountable through the development of sexual violence response protocols and through the investigation of Title IX complaints. Under current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Department is trying to reverse many of the Obama-era guidelines. Critics of the proposed changes argue that they weaken the accountability of schools while protecting perpetrators of sexual violence.

Tired of waiting on their school administrators, some college students are initiating action to confront and prevent sexual violence.  In an article for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, student advocates at Vanderbilt University write about instituting “collaborative activism,” which occurs by “bringing together administrative figures and student representatives to pursue mutual goals of safety, dialogue, and justice.” Civil law also offers survivors of sexual violence opportunities to pursue justice, while holding sexual predators and the institutions that support them accountable. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted by a fellow student or college employee, please contact our experienced attorneys for a free consultation.

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